Breaking It Down: Different types of conflict.

January 31, 2024

A cluster of diverse question mark speech bubbles overlapping each other

A question for you: How many different types of conflict do you think there are?

It may sound like a riddle, but let’s take a moment and give it some thought.

Is there only one type of conflict? No, the messiness of lived experience tells us that it’s more complicated than that. So are there infinite flavours of conflict because every situation is entirely unique? That feels a bit more accurate, but there also seems to be repeating patterns in the myriad of ways it plays out.

Organizing conflict in any sort of clear way is difficult when we’re in it, no matter how much experience we have. But from a zoomed-out perspective, we can begin to see the commonalities at play.

It’s important to note that conflict is a natural part of human interaction. It’s not good or bad in itself, but simply a part of living in community that needs to be worked with.

Understanding the different types of conflict can help us navigate them effectively. By recognizing their characteristics, we can develop strategies to address them constructively.

Though a simplification, it’s useful to start with the assumption that there are only two types of conflict.

Conflict Type #1: Missed Expectations

Missed expectations occur when someone does something that goes against what we expected them to do or fails to meet our expectations. This type of conflict involves unmet or violated agreements. By understanding the dynamics of missed expectations, we can approach them in a way that fosters understanding and resolution – hopefully avoiding the pitfall that is the attribution problem.

In cases of missed expectations, it’s always best to lead with questions of curiosity, such as: what was going on for you when this happened? Tell me a little bit more about the situation. What caused this expectation of mine not to be met?

Very often we will find that there was some rationale for why things unfolded the way they unfolded. And the person who is being asked these questions will likely make the connection that what happened didn’t work for you. And if that’s the case, if we have a healthy relationship and the person wants to make amends, that gives them a space to let them know that they didn’t intend to cause harm. And if they did cause harm, they’re likely going to want to make it right.

Conflict Type #2: Disagreements

Disagreements arise when individuals have differing opinions, beliefs, or preferences. Although disagreements may not involve violated agreements, they can still lead to tensions and conflicts. Understanding the nature of disagreements allows us to engage in productive dialogue and explore potential resolutions.

Disagreement doesn’t necessarily equate with conflict. Consider this example: You want to go to a restaurant with two of your work colleagues, but you don’t agree on what type of restaurant to visit. At some point, if you don’t come to a solution you’re going to get hungry. And a few minutes later, you might start to get hangry! At this point the disagreement has the potential to become conflict (relatable, right?).

Solutions to disagreements aren’t as straightforward as those to missed expectations, but the process remains the same: always aim to shift judgement to curiosity.

A conversation grounded in curiosity might sound like this:

I see your point and I understand how your position allows you to meet the needs for X, Y and Z. And I also think that A, B, and C (i.e. my needs) are also important. And I’m not sure how your position might address these things that I think are important. Could you let me know a little bit about your position and how it might be able to meet these needs if I’m missing something? Or do you think there is space for your position to be shifted a little bit so that we can prioritize my needs as well?

By staying grounded in an attitude of curiosity, we open up the potential for landing on a solution. There are four types of solutions we can arrive at:

  1. Shift in position (okay, you convinced me to get a burger for lunch instead of pizza)
  2. Compromise (since we can’t agree on a restaurant, let’s go to a food court where we can all get what we want)
  3. Separate (respecting each of our different needs, let’s go our separate ways for lunch today)
  4. Shift from consensus-based decision-making to majority-rule decision-making (let’s vote on it and decide that way)

You won’t necessarily know what solution you’re aiming for when you start managing this type of conflict, which is why you should instead focus on the process of curious and respectful conversation. Eventually, the right solution will present itself to you and the others involved.

A wild rollercoaster with different emotional emojis along it

So, how many types of conflict are there? The answer is that it depends on the framework that you look upon it from.

At Mediation Services, we ground the conflict resolution process in the perspective that there are two types of conflict. From this understanding, we build a framework to address tough relational situations that otherwise feel like an up-and-down rollercoaster of emotions.

And how can you establish this for yourself? Well, that’s a question we do have a clear answer for. Our FREE on-demand Conflict 101 webinar is an opportunity for anyone (like you!) to begin unpacking what conflict is and how it’s playing out in your life.

We also invite you to attend our in-person trainings that we offer here in Winnipeg or, for your convenience, our expanding online collection of webinars that embrace accessibility, flexibility, and getting to learn at your own pace.

If you need deeper support for a specific situation, head over to our mediation self-referral page and fill out an intake form for neighbourhood/community conflict, family conflict, or workplace conflict. We can serve as an experienced third-party and facilitate a mediation session to help generate an understanding of everyone’s issues and concerns – and, importantly, to work towards an agreement.

Navigating conflict is a complicated process for which there is no one-size-fits-all solution – but don’t be daunted! The most important thing is to start unpacking conflict more consciously.

It takes time to integrate these tools into one’s life and its relationships, but the effort pays off in dividends. Start today!

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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